Early last year, my photo appeared on the cover of Jet
magazine. I was wearing a slick black designer suit over an open-collared white shirt—the photo was serious, sexy, and undeniably masculine. As a black man who came of age in the 1960s and 70s, appearing on the cover of the legendary Jet
magazine was an important signifier that I'd made it. To me, Jet
is still the final word on who's who in the black community. But it was even more important than that to me. You see, one of the great fears of every man or woman who hides the truth about their sexuality is that as soon as they're exposed, they'll be cast out of the community, exiled for breaking the rules. For me, that fear was multiplied many times over. When I published my first book, which revealed my own complicated sexual life in detail, I wasn't just exposing myself to my immediate friends and family, but I was bascially stripping myself naked in front of the entire community. If I was going to be rejected and cast out for what I revealed about myself, there was no place for me to turn.
Which brings me back to that Jet
magazine cover. When I got that first copy of the magazine in my hands, my heart swelled—not just with pride, but with relief. I saw in it an affirmation that people—my own people—understood and respected what I was doing and still embraced me. I blew that photo up into a giant poster and hung it in my office. It's there now, the first thing any visitor sees.
But the next day, I got a rude awakening when I turned on my radio to listen to the Tom Joyner Morning Show
. Tom Joyner's radio show is like the electronic equivalent of Jet
magazine; it's the most popular radio show among black people around the country, with a national audience in the millions. I tuned into the show to hear Joyner and his comedian sidekick, J. Anthony Brown, howling about the Jet
photograph. They were straight clowning me, talking about how gay I looked and how only a dummy would ever believe that I could pass myself off as straight. I was deeply embarrassed. They went on and on to the point where I decided to go back and look at the magazine myself. By now, I was embarrassed to even pick up the magazine again. For the photo to become such a big joke, I figured it must be pretty bad. Eventually I picked up the magazine and checked out the photo again. Yep, there I was, just as I remembered, staring back at the camera, my features set, my posture rigid, my clothing perfectly stylish but by no means effeminate.
I started wondering why Joyner and his morning show crew seemed to be pushing their joke so hard. But then it suddenly came to me. Let me explain: In traditional black male culture, we're taught from a young age to fear the sissy, the freak, the faggot. But we're also taught that it's easy to pick one out of a crowd, which is why as a man, you're taught to be very careful about the signals you give off. For instance, when I was a kid, if my father caught me crossing my legs a certain way when I sat down, he'd rush over and push my knees apart to make sure my feet were planted firmly on the ground. "Never cross your legs like that—that's how women sit," he'd tell me. Really? I clearly wasn't a woman, I was a little boy, but the unspoken message in my father's words was that appearances count—to appear less than manly was to be less than manly. But he also implied that the reverse was true: if you acted manly, it meant you were fully a man—a heterosexual man. So, he seemed to say, if I only sat the right way, everything would be okay.
But that's why the idea of the down low threw so many black men for a loop. Here I am, someone who spent time in the military, had a wife and kids, attended church every Sunday, sexed more women than a lot of guys could imagine, and now I'm telling you that I have sex with men. It doesn't make sense to traditional-minded men (or women, for that matter). More than that, it scares them. It means that what they've been taught about identifying sexuality is not necessarily true. It means that sexuality is looser and harder to define than they ever allowed themselves to imagine. It means that no matter how a man crosses his legs, you still don't know who he's f**king when the lights go out and the shades are drawn. That's a threat to people who cling to more traditional ideas about sexual identity and orientation. And the response to that threat is often vicious homophobia. Rather than try to make sense of the complicated reality about sexuality, which is that people get down in thousands of different variations, not just "gay" and "straight," some people will try to attack and banish whatever it is they don't understand. They try to exile the bisexual, or the gay brother or sister, or the brother struggling to come up from the down low, thinking that by making these confusing people invisible, it will somehow put their own minds back at ease. They're wrong.
So that's why some of my critics do their best to categorize me as gay. I've often wondered where this need for labels comes from. For some people, it's a defense mechanism, a way to strip away whatever masculinity I have and send me off, so they can relax again. That's nothing new. For many men who live in traditional black communities, the word gay is a loaded term, often used as a weapon. It's name-calling and has the same effect as it does in the schoolyard when the guys circle around and start snapping on the fat kid or the skinny kid or the kid with the played-out clothes. The purpose is to intimidate and to silence and to divide, to create an us-against-them mentality.
After being so happy about feeling the embrace of the community by being on the cover of Jet
, it was a fast turnaround to feel ridiculed on the Tom Joyner Show
. Of course, everybody knows that Tom Joyner and his crew talk about everyone, and in our community everyone is fair game for the
"dozens," so there's no point in taking it personally. And Tom has since then supported me and my work by having me on his HBCU cruise. Even with his jokes, the fact that he mentioned me and my book on his show helped me get the word out. So I have nothing but respect for the man and the positive work he does in the community. Still, I'm only human.
But this low point became a key for me. It helped clarify one of the reasons men go on the down low rather than simply identifying themselves as gay or bisexual and calling it a day. No one wants to be ostracized and excommunicated from the world they know and love. No one wants to lose a place in the culture that sustains them. And no one wants to be the kid in the schoolyard again, being dissed and snapped on until he's forced to find a lonely corner by himself. Labels do count.
I have been asked many times what exactly "on the down low" really means. My answer has never changed. The down low, or DL, generally refers to the lifestyle of black men who consider themselves heterosexual and live publicly heterosexual lives—even to the point of being married to women, in some cases—but who also have sex with men without telling their female partners.
I've also been asked many times if I am the creator of the term "down low." Of course the answer to that is no. The term was originally devised to describe any kind of slick, secretive behavior, including infidelity in heterosexual relationships. The term has been common in the lyrics of many
R&B songs. Singer R. Kelly made the phrase famous in his song "Down Low (Nobody Has to Know)": We can keep it on the down low / Nobody has to know
. That song (and the video that went with it) was all about heterosexual infidelity. But the term was eventually adopted by the subculture of men who lead "straight" lives but sleep with other men on the side.
The subtitle of my first book was A Journey into the Lives of "Straight" Black Men Who Sleep with Men
. This not only raised a lot of eyebrows, it raised a lot of questions: How can you say that sex between a man and another man is not gay? Are you saying that a man who has sex with another man but is married to a woman is still straight? What's the difference between a man on the down low and a bisexual man who practices both hetero and homosexual sex? Aren't down-low men just gay men trying to have it both ways?
The mistake in all of those questions is that people confuse what they want to call these men with what these men want to call themselves. Let me explain: If you're a bisexual man who doesn't want anyone to know you're bisexual, you'll simply call yourself straight. If you're a closeted gay man, you'll tell all the world that you're straight. Anyone with any sense knows that a man who is regularly having sex with another man is not straight by any conventional definition of the word. But we used that subtitle to make a very important point: despite their sexual lives and preferences, many DL men consider themselves to be straight because that's the face they put on for the world. This is one of the fundamental features of the DL man. He doesn't necessarily think that his sexual behavior—having sex with men—changes his identity as a straight man. He doesn't want what happens in his sexual life to in any way conflict with the entitlements that go to straight men in the world: a wife, a traditional family, and a secure place in the community.
Like many slang terms, DL means different things to different people. There are many variations of DL brothers. Some DL men identify themselves as straight, have wives and girlfriends, but also secretly have sex with other men. Others on the DL are younger men who are still questioning or exploring their sexuality, but are not comfortable yet in claiming a same-gender-loving (SGL) identity, so they keep their sexual identity on the down low. Some DL men are closeted gay or bisexual men—men who acknowledge their gay or bisexual identities to themselves, but who are not open about it. These men may exclusively have sex with other men, or with both men and women, but because of the stigma placed on gay people, they stay closeted.
The common denominator is that a person on the DL stays on the DL for fear of the backlash that outing himself will bring on. This is especially true in the African American community, where even a man who claims that he's bisexual is still only seen as gay. And gay in our community usually means faggot, sissy, queer. The lack of acceptance of the gay masculine man in the African American community has led many gay or bisexual men to live their lives on the DL. These men are unwilling or afraid to be labeled by the stereotypes that society and the media have placed on anything attached to the word gay. These men don't want to have their lives turned into some Will and Grace stereotype—they're not dressing like the men on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy
or hanging out at the "Birdcage." In other words, they have difficulty accepting the whole package of the gay lifestyle. And, in many cases, their own sexuality is not simply a matter of preferring men over women—they actually like both. For these men sexuality is a not an item on a menu, but a long, varied buffet they want to pick and choose from. More important, they don't think that the way they behave in their sexual lives should have any impact on the rest of their lives—they don't think sex is the thing that defines them. So rather than come out and let people label them in a restrictive way, they create a secret life for themselves where they can practice their sexual preferences as they choose, while still maintaining a straight identity to the public. They start living their lives on the DL.
This complexity about labels and identity extends to black men who are already out of the closet and living openly gay lives, who still reject obvious, flamboyant displays of their orientation and even reject using the word gay. Black men who reject the labels of gay or bisexual have received negative criticism from the white gay community. If you talk to many African American gay community leaders, they will tell you that this tension is growing.
I have been told by many of my gay friends that the tension stems from the lack of support the African American gay community shows to the gay movement as a whole. Some claim that while the white gay community is extremely open about their fight to be accepted and have equal rights, the black gay community has not joined that struggle, yet still benefits from the progress the movement has brought. Some in the white gay community feel that black gay men need to join the fight.
Many of the African American homosexual friends I have object to the idea that they have to adopt the same tactics as the white gay community. They feel that their fight has to be waged internally, inside our own community, before we can begin to make any efforts outside. This isn't to say that there are no black men who have taken up the cause of gay rights. There are African American gay men who stand shoulder to shoulder with their white gay counterparts and joined them in the fight for equal rights and for equality in general. There is an organization headed by an outspoken black gay activist that is on the front lines of gay rights. But I recently said in an interview that many of my gay friends find that they cannot be both black and gay in their community and still find acceptance. This activist disagreed and claimed that there are many out and proud black gay men who feel comfortable being black and gay in their 'hood. I don't know about that. When I asked my gay friends if they feel like they can be out, gay, and proud in their hometowns and communities, not one of them said yes.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Coming Up from the Down Low by J.L. King. Copyright © 2005 by J.L. King. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.